Friday, December 5, 2008

Authenticity, politics, "failed" novels and "odes to dead salmon": Interview with our new Writer Laureate, Nancy Lord


Nancy Lord is the author of three collections of short stories and three literary nonfiction books, FISH CAMP: Life on an Alaskan Shore, GREEN ALASKA: Dreams from the Far Coast, and BELUGA DAYS: Tracking a White Whale’s Truths. She settled in Homer, Alaska in 1973.

I have to add a personal note, that I first met Nancy in Homer, in 1994, when she offered to take my young family and me on a winter tidepooling walk – picture ice pans and stoic invertebrates scuttling between pockets of frozen beach. If memory serves (and it may not), we stayed out past dark, tidepooling with flashlights. To me, this was the image of a true and hardy Alaska writer, familiar with her environment, always looking for something new to observe and wonder about.

Nancy Lord: Actually, Andromeda, the leader of that nighttime tidepool excursion was noted naturalist-teacher Daisy Lee Bitter, who invited both your family and me to see what was out there. I was and remain a student of the natural world, always looking to learn from those who know more than I do, as well as from the little crabs and anemones themselves.

Andromeda:
I stand corrected. You can see that my departure from nonfiction writing has allowed my memories to evolve unchecked.

Nancy, congratulations on your appointment as Writer Laureate and thanks also for your support of this blog. Your first book was the short story collection THE COMPASS INSIDE OURSELVES published in 1984 by the nonprofit Fireweed Press, as the result of a statewide contest sponsored by Fireweed and the Alaska Council on the Arts.

I imagine getting that first book out made you feel like a “real writer.” We don’t have that contest anymore, but we do have Rasmuson grants, for example. On the whole, do you think Alaska writers have more or less opportunity now; are we giving new or emerging writers what they need?

Nancy Lord:
It’s true that that contest was a great boost to me as a writer. I had written a small number of short stories, and entering the contest required that I gather them up (and retype them, in those days). When I won (judged by the awesome and intimidating writer Stanley Elkin) I thought, maybe I should do this with more seriousness. That’s when I applied to an M.F.A. program to actually study writing. But, to answer your question, I think Alaska’s writers today do have more opportunities than in the past, though we seem to have fewer than writers in most other states. Both the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Rasmuson Foundation offer individual fellowships, ASCA has “career opportunity” grants, the university brings in visiting writers as well as offering classes, and we’ve got a number of summer gatherings that highlight and inspire writers—the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, the Valdez Theatre Conference, the Sitka Symposium, the Fairbanks Book Festival, and the public reading series at UAA that accompanies the new low-residency M.F.A. program there. When I was first writing I felt like I was truly “in the wilderness,” but today it feels like we have a rather solid writing community of shared effort and support.

Andromeda: I recently listened to the excellent UAA podcast of your lecture, “Why I Write.” I found all of it fascinating, including your review of Orwell’s four motives for writing – egoism (not in the bad sense, but only in the sense of recognizing one’s own ideas are important and worth sharing), aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. I imagine you write from all four motivations, but which one has the biggest pull on you now?

Nancy Lord: I do write from all four of Orwell’s stated motivations. Different stories, essays, or books have different motivational proportions, but I can’t imagine writing without clear purpose. Orwell defines “political purpose” as “pushing the world” in the broadest sense—essentially affecting how other people see and understand the world, that they might think or behave a little differently after reading what I (or another writer) have written. That doesn’t mean I think that all writing has to be seriously involved with big ideas. A simple story that gladdens a heart can “push the world” by granting its reader a small measure of pleasure or hope. As a writer, I’m interested in making both art and meaning. I’m not a journalist in the traditional sense because I’m not interested in being objective and generically voiceless; I have attitudes and opinions and want them present in my writing, even as I’m a stickler for being factual and fair in my nonfiction. I presented that lecture at the UAA M.F.A. program because I’ve found that students don’t seem to think very hard about why they write; too often they seem to limit themselves to a goal of “self-expression” and doubt they have anything to say that might be meaningful to another person. I’d like them to understand that each of them has unique gifts to give to the world.

Andromeda: In your UAA talk you challenged writers to ask What are the stories of our age? You answered that for you, one of the most important stories is climate change.

One of our contributors, Jeremy Pataky, suggested the following question, which may dovetail with anything you’d like to share about your current climate change writings: “Can you comment on the relationship between your political and creative activities? Does your activism as a conservationist and environmentalist and your efforts as a creative writer support one another, or do those dual roles demand distinctly different modes of thought and attention? Maybe they're two sides of one coin?”

Nancy Lord: For me, yes, climate change is the story of our time and place. After struggling with what I as a writer could contribute, I settled on a narrative book about how northern people and communities are coping and adapting. It’s nonfiction, and it’s all about stories—presenting real people and real places in real circumstances, and then “hanging” the science and public policy material on the stories. Really, my political and creative interests are one. Where I used to be more involved in environmental and political activism, I now try to direct most of that energy into my writing. I know that I can’t do it all; I can’t be writing letters to congresspeople every day and working on campaigns and also get my writing done, so I’ve convinced myself that, as one person, the thing I can do best is write for publication and other people are going to have to pick up more of the direct action. Which is not to say that I’m only interested in the environment. I’m interested in all sorts of things, and I use my writing to learn about them and figure out what I think about how everything connects. I’m very interested these days in how the brain works, memory, loss of memory, and how what we know transforms with time.

Andromeda: You’ve said that it took you a while to feel comfortable mining your own Alaska experiences, but later embraced them as your “heart’s field,” to use Eudora Welty’s term. When did you know you had found your subject and/or your voice?

Nancy Lord: That’s a tough one. I think I was scared off, years ago, by something John Haines wrote in “The Writer as Alaskan”: a kind of condemnation that new-comers to Alaska always mined the same myths, “odes to dead salmon,” and that it would take generations to develop a worthy Alaskan literature. I’d written a few odes to dead salmon and knew that I needed to get beyond the obvious. The writing that eventually came to seem most authentic to me was what I produced from my life at my fishcamp. I’d written several individual essays, and it finally dawned on me that I knew that place very well and “owned” my experience there, and from that I was confident enough to put together my book Fishcamp.

Andromeda: Every writer’s life has its ups and downs. What was one of the most important breaks or validations you got as a writer? Can you share an equivalent rough spell that might illuminate the writer’s path for the rest of us?

Nancy Lord: I’d have to say that 1983 contest that resulted in my first book of stories. I don’t generally need outward measures of approval or success to direct or keep me going, but that confirmation of some ability (even in the small pond that was Alaska) did encourage me to write more and even to go back to school to learn something about what I was doing. A rough spell might be the one right after that. In my na├»vete I thought, I’ll just write a bunch more stories and have another book. In actuality, it took until 1991 before I had a second book accepted, and that was after twice being a finalist in book contests and getting and then losing an agent. And that publisher (Coffee House Press) was not the big fancy one I’d dreamed of but a small non-profit. I’ve still never had a big publisher or more than a small advance, but I’ve learned just how tough the publishing world is (and getting tougher), and to be satisfied with finding a few editors who love my work and a small readership who draws meaning from it. Then there are my four failed novels and the fact that when I sent a revision of the latest one to my agent, she liked it less than the first version of it.

Andromeda: I want to ask something lighter now. Tell us about your workspace – at home or wherever you work most, what’s on your desk or within view?

Nancy Lord: I’m very embarrassed about my workspace and glad you can’t see it. It’s a home office, and it’s incredibly cluttered. Piles everywhere. At my feet there’s a big bag of materials I brought home from an environmental journalism conference two months ago and haven’t unpacked yet. To one side I’ve got two file boxes of beluga materials left from that book but that I still rummage in, since that issue (trying to get the Cook Inlet belugas protected) lives on. A pile of stuff from my current project on my left, a pile of stuff that needs to be dealt with on my right, a pile of magazines, a box with teaching files, an overflowing paperbag of trash, multiple piles of books that have overflowed the bookcase, you get the picture. Shells and fossils on the windowsill and a piece of red ribbon from the opening of the new Homer library (2 years ago now) among photos and phone lists tacked to the bulletin board. A piece of paper on which I’d written (fading ink) “whatever keeps you from doing your work has become your work.” Amen.

Andromeda: You write both fiction and nonfiction. What do you get from each, and when you have a pressing question or idea, how do you know (or what point do you know) which genre you will use to tell your current story?

Nancy Lord: I do both, but more nonfiction these days, because this seems right now to be a nonfiction time and place. That is, I feel like the issues of our day demand nonfiction from me. Also because the “market” seems to like my nonfiction better than my fiction. The research required by nonfiction—the interviews, the fact-checking, all that—can be a grind, and the freedom of fiction as an antidote to that is really a pleasure. The material dictates genre to me; I’ve never wavered about whether I would tell something as fiction or nonfiction. Once I had in mind a novel based on one of the early Russian explorations of Alaska—fiction because there would be a minimum of known facts and I’d have to invent characters and events. But then I decided to work with the Harriman Expedition instead, and there was a lot of material there; I could imagine when I needed to, but nonfiction seemed the way to go. (That book is Green Alaska.)

Andromeda: You said in the podcast that you have a “puritanical work ethic” traceable to your New England roots, and also that you work like crazy at writer’s colonies. Can you tell us more about how you stay focused, what you’ve learned over the years that can help the rest of us be disciplined and productive?

Nancy Lord: I’m actually not very good at keeping to a writing schedule and being productive. I would like to be one of those writers who leaps out of bed at 5 in the morning and puts in 5 hours of writing before the sun’s up. But I am not. I do most of my writing when I go away to writers’ colonies, which I try to do for at least a month every year. Then I don’t have a messy desk or phone and email or any of the distractions of regular life. I set up my colony desk with my computer and just the notebooks and files I’ve brought, and do my work all day.

Andromeda: Related to the mention of writer’s colonies above, Ken Waldman wanted me to ask you this good question: how does your time out of state, for teaching gigs as well as retreats, affect your writing and your personal life? (I don’t know about Ken, but I suppose some of us would like to believe a trip out of state is just what we need… )

Nancy Lord: I don’t do the kind of constant travel and teaching that Ken does (and which I’m in awe of.) I’ve only had one Outside teaching job—one semester in Ohio a couple of years ago, which I did not enjoy as much as I thought I would. Going to a writers’ colony/retreat is my idea of heaven. I love not only the way I get so much work done, but being taken care of (the lunch basket delivered to the door at noon), the adventure of a new place (canoeing in the Adirondacks, walking the white sand beach in Florida), and particularly being with other writers and artists, many of whom have become good friends. I’m able to go away and do this because I’m not tied down by job or family here, and my partner has always been very supportive of this, because he knows it’s what I need as a writer.

Andromeda: How do you plan to focus your activities as our new State Writer?

Nancy Lord: I’m still figuring this out. The role seems to be a combination of responding to requests and to pursuing a project of my own. For example, I was asked to give a presentation at the women’s prison in Eagle River last month, which I did, and in March I’ll be one of the judges of the Poetry Out Loud student competition. I have a passion for libraries and am developing a project to work with the Alaska Library Association and individual libraries to encourage expansion and programming efforts. I anticipate visiting a number of small libraries, to share our story of how we built a new Homer library and developed a strong Friends of the Library group and to present readings and workshops.

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